It's a debate that has raged since the 1950s. Which center was better: the offensive juggernaut who put up unheard-of statistics, or the defensive stopper who won more championships than anyone else? These two players were basketball's first superstars; they were responsible for making the game the way it is today. This slideshow will present the reasons that Bill Russell was the superior player of the two.
One of the defining qualities of Bill Russell was his unfailing dedication to his team. From his rookie year until his last season, he would, without exception, throw up in the locker room before big games. This is a sign of his humility, that he never took victory for granted, and remained modest throughout his career. Russell's game reflected this. He was an unparalleled shot blocker, who specialized in tipping passes to his teammates to start fast breaks. He was a phenomenal rebounder, averaging 22.5 for his career (second only to Chamberlain). He extracted the most from each of his teammates, resulting in championship after championship.
On the other hand, Wilt Chamberlain, while undoubtedly hugely talented, was considered to be a coach's nightmare, and a drain in the locker room. He was traded twice in his career, after demanding to be allowed to leave. He forced out several coaches over his 14 year career. He clashed with Lakers coach Butch Van Breda Kolff during the 1969 Finals against Russell's Celtics, and was benched in the last six minutes of a close Game 7. Chamberlain always lacked the winning gene that was so much an integral part of Bill Russell.
The basketball adage "Defense wins championships" has become one of the most commonly used phrases in the sport. This dates back to Bill Russell and his Celtics teams. Russell is generally considered to be among the greatest defensive players ever, and perhaps the greatest defensive center of all time. He played in an era where blocks and steals were not counted, so statistical proof of his dominance is lacking. However, testimonials from that era agree on his defensive supremacy. As mentioned in a previous slide, the Celtics of the late '50s and '60s thrived on the four point swings which were started by Russell's tips.
Chamberlain, too, was a prolific shot blocker, and was a decent defensive player in his own right. However, this had more to do with his status as the only 7-footer in the league than with any particular defensive aptitude. Wilt's blocks were not tips, either; they were volleyball swats that ended up in the third row. While this was certainly entertaining for the crowd, it did not help his team as much as it could.
Russell's entire being was focused on one thing: winning, and winning often. He was the greatest winner in North American professional team sports, and he accomplished this by forgoing the quest for statistics that so consumed Chamberlain. Russell didn't care for glory or for records; he lived to crush his opponent and to win. Period.
On the other hand, Wilt was obsessed with statistical superiority, which he certainly achieved. He averaged 50.4 points per game in the 1961-62 season, a number that no one has even come close to matching since. One would think that the MVP for that season would be locked up for Chamberlain; however, it went to Russell, who averaged fewer than 19 PPG, but who won 11 more games that year. Wilt, for reasons known only to him, had an obsession with never fouling out of a game, dating back to his high school days. Therefore, he would quit on his team as soon as he was called for his fourth foul. Everyone knew this, so they stopped guarding him in these situations. The famous "Havlicek stole the ball" game would never have happened, except that John Havlicek knew that Wilt would never be passed to, so he guarded Chet Walker instead. One year, Wilt decided that he would lead the league in assists, which he accomplished. He always had the skill to lead the league in assists, he just never cared about setting up his teammates until he realized that assists, too, were a statistic he could dominate. Even then, he yelled at his teammates for missing shots, as he would not be credited for an assist. This was perhaps the fundamental difference between Russell and Chamberlain.
13 seasons. 12 Finals appearances. 11 Championships. eight straight rings. It does not get much better than that. Russell was the consummate winner, ending his career with more rings than he could fit on both hands. He played so well when it mattered that the NBA named the Finals MVP trophy after him. This is really the only argument that matters, in the end. The NBA is about winning championships, and no one did it better than Bill Russell.
Chamberlain won two rings, in 1967 and 1972. The first of these came after a season in which Wilt was finally willing to trust his teammates, as well as subscribing to a defense-first mentality. The second was with a loaded Lakers team stacked with Hall of Famers, and it was after Russell retired. It is no coincidence that Wilt's greatest success came when he bought into the the way of playing that Russell had been showcasing for years.